It's a truism that there is no surer sign of a politician who is out of ideas than when he or she starts talking about "protecting the children".
A few weeks ago, Australia's Prime Minister, "Honest John" Howard, launched a crusade to "save the children" of Australia's aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
At first glance, if there ever where any children who needed saving, it is them: Australia's treatment of our native people is disgraceful. Alcoholism and unemployment is rife. Families live in Third World levels of poverty, and child abuse is common. Like most hunter-gatherers in contact with technologically advanced conquerors, history has not been kind to the Aboriginal people of Australia. Their culture is breaking down, and with it, the people are trapped in a cycle of self-destruction and abuse. The situation needs serious improvement.
But the situation has been dire for decades, including years of neglect during Howard's entire time as PM. It's only now, with an election coming up and for the first time in years a serious challenger in the Opposition Party, that Howard has discovered the plight of the Aboriginal communities and declared it a national emergency. There's no time to think, we must act, and to hang with the expense! Or, for that matter, the consequences.
After initially saying that it could cost tens of millions of dollars, the PM is now suggesting it could be half a billion or more -- and we shouldn't complain, because in an emergency like this, no expense is too great to save the children.
So how has Howard saved the children?
By sending in the Australian Army to take over Aboriginal communities. Parents will have their welfare payments cut if they resist -- and with unemployment at terrifying levels, most Aboriginal families are on welfare. No jobs out in the desert.
If the PM is quoting half a billion dollars -- that's $7500 for each Aboriginal person in the Territory -- it will probably end up five times that. But the Government's sights aren't set very high: they want to introduce "dry areas", where the sale or possession of alcohol and pornography are criminal offenses, and compulsory health checks. No money for housing, or education, or actual health treatment. And the cost is the military occupation of part of Australia, the creation of virtual mini police states, robbing the Aboriginal people of what tiny sliver of self-determination they had left. Aboriginal leaders are saying that this "help" is something they don't need or want.
That's a lot of money for little expected result. What's going on? Is this, perhaps, like the apocryphal "$14,000 hammers" the US military used to buy when there was need to have money disappear off the books for black ops? Could it be merely old fashioned corruption? Or just incompetence?
These Aboriginals may be poor, but they're still citizens, and so it is surprising how little media attention has been given to the literal military occupation of their communities. Google News for army "northern territory" aborigines gives a mere 14 results, the second of which is about an Aussie Rules football coach.
(Note: due to the nature of Google News, these results will change with time.)
The authors of the report that prompted Howard to launch his Crusade labelled the government use of the Army to seize Aboriginal land as "devastating", and said they felt betrayed by the PM's government:
"There is not a single action that the Commonwealth has taken so far that has corresponded with a single recommendation," Ms Anderson said.
[Mr Wild] said he and Ms Anderson were able to get indigenous people to talk honestly about child sexual abuse because they arrived quietly in communities, displaying courtesy. "We didn't arrive in gunships, we didn't arrive in tanks and trucks." found [sic] evidence of child sexual abuse in every one of 45 communities visited in the Northern Territory, blaming poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, poor education and housing, and disempowerment that has contributed to violence.
The government's plan, such that it is, goes for the easy targets, while ignoring or making worse the fundamental causes of the problem: unemployment and a dying culture. Yahoo reports:
But Ms Anderson conceded there was the need for urgent action and for commonwealth help.
"We needed the assistance of the federal government that had the bigger cheque book," she said.
"We did want to bring it to the government's attention but not in the way it has been responded to by the federal government."
Ms Anderson said the report was deliberately written in such a reasonable way that the commonwealth would be unreasonable to ignore the recommendations.
"They behaved as though we all have done nothing and we don't know anything and we have all been sitting on our hands," she said.
Ms Anderson said there needed to be an appropriate way of returning power to people in Aboriginal communities.
"Aboriginal people are worried about their kids but they want to be part of the solution not merely to be passive recipients," she said.
"There has to be a whole new terms of engagement renegotiated with Aboriginal people. The days of being passive recipients are over, absolutely over. That isn't going to work, that hasn't worked."
Despite early reports that Aboriginal leaders supported the plan, it seems that in fact they actually oppose it:
The Australian Government's intervention in the Northern Territory is sickening, rotten and worrying, says one of the most powerful Aboriginal leaders in the territory.
At the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, former Northern Land Council president, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, called on people to fight the Howard Government's takeover of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.
It's gratifying to see the pieces fall into place. When I first heard about this plan, back in June, I thought it was Children Overboard again. And what did I discover today? The Liberal Party's own polls are supporting what newspaper opinion polls are saying: Australia's voters now find Howard too old and dishonest. Even the right-wing Herald-Sun plastered the report on their front page.